The Americas 59.3 (2003) 420-421
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One of only a handful of historical works on the participation of women in the development of Puerto Rican society, Felix V. Matos Rodríguez's book opens a window onto the structures and struggles that shaped daily life in early nineteenth-century San Juan. Focusing on a period of time in which the female population of San Juan far exceeded that of males (ranging from 59% in 1828 to 52% in 1859), Matos Rodríguez works hard to show that "[w]omen were not just passive bystanders observing the changes" that characterized the decades-long economic crisis that consumed Puerto Rico from the 1840s to the 1860s (p. 3). In this context, Matos Rodríguez's research reveals the degree to which honor codes regarding female respectability worked to create economic opportunities for poor women of color who worked as street vendors or operated small-time businesses such as taverns, billiard rooms and mondonguerías (restaurants specializing in tripe). Given the fact that in 1846, 47% of heads of households in San Juan were women, the latter's potential for subverting the social hierarchy lay not so much in their specific actions as in the reality that their day-to-day activities represented, a distortion of the artifice of cultural power and religious authority that Church officials and other patriarchs sought to projected as the basis of colonial society. Faced with a stagnating economy, rising prices for slaves and an uncooperative labor force (which elite contemporaries equated with a shortage of labor), Spanish officials and the Catholic Church adopted a number of measures to thwart the threats that they perceived among the highly autonomous mass of lower-class women whose labor proved crucial to San Juan's economy, but whose values and independence undermined it. [End Page 420] Hoping to reduce the general visibility of the urban poor and their ability to compete with elite businesses, officials promoted laws favoring landlords' rights to high rents, policies that pushed the poor beyond the city's walls and measures targeted at ensuring a steady supply of domestic and laundresses for the city's wealthy elites.
Not surprisingly, Matos Rodríguez finds that colonial authorities relied on a contradictory set of tactics that, on the one hand, severely limited women's participation in public life and, on the other hand, invited the participation of elite-class women in projects meant to moralize, and therefore, modernize San Juan's popular classes. Believing that immoral behavior led to vagrancy and that poor women encouraged such behavior by maintaining gathering places for the poor outside the elite domain, state and Church officials organized projects such as an anticoncubinage campaign and founded a Casa de Beneficencia, or poor house, ostensibly to alleviate poverty and reinforce the family structure. However, the persecution of social deviance quickly became a vehicle for generating vulnerable sources of forced and cheap labor (pp. 112-114). Undoubtedly, as Matos Rodríguez shows, discourse, ideology, and economic incentives combined to assign the Casa de Beneficencia and its elite-class female advisory council the role of solidifying rather than ameliorating the system of political and social oppression that defined Spanish colonialism in Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, studies like this one make clear that Spanish colonialism was a much more dynamic system than previously thought, in large part because of the actions and attitudes of popular-class actors such as San Juan's women of color.
Matos Rodríguez's approach is reminiscent of Eileen Suárez Findlay's (1999) and Christine Hünenfeldt's (1994) works on women, gendered codes of honor and urban culture. However, this book is neither as meticulously researched or as provocative in its analysis. With the exception of the last two chapters dealing with lower-class women, much of Matos Rodríguez's work is unnecessarily repetitive and...